How to take better holiday photos on your smartphone

SGJWE8234

At the beginning of the month I went to Bristol, to test the new iPhone XS in a photo walk organised by Three and led by photographer Rob Percy. As an Android user and after I have tested the camera from the new Samsung Galaxy S9 back in July, I was very curious to see what the camera of the iPhone can do. And I was honestly surprised. I fell in love with the Portrait mode, which I used constantly during the day but also with the colours the phone captures. Because of the HDR mode, all the photos came out vibrant and sharp.

4

I wanted to test the phone a little bit more though, in different environments, so I borrowed it for another week. I took it to the World Travel Market, where I shot photos under artificial light, I tested it in low light during the night and I also experimented action shots on it. And I loved it, the camera is outstanding, and the phone can easily be a perfect travel companion for anyone who doesn’t want to carry any other equipment on holiday.

I was very impressed with the camera of the iPhone XS and this is why I thought about writing my recommendations on how to take better holiday photos on a smartphone. Whilst all the photos in this post were taken on the iPhone XS, which you can check out here, the suggestions in this guide can be applied to any smartphone you may have.

 

Know your device

1

I think this is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you regarding smartphone photography. Understanding the camera of your smartphone, its strengths but also its limitation will help you take better photos.

Besides my smartphone, I also have a DSLR and a mirrorless camera. I don’t expect the smartphone to shoot the same way the DSLR does. Taking holiday photos on a smartphone is however convenient (my DSLR, with the lens and all the gear weights about 10KG and needs an entire backpack to carry) so when I go on short trips, I sometimes leave all my other cameras at home. I have learned what my phone can do and how to work with it.

I find that one of the best strengths of the iPhone XS’s camera is the portrait mode. I like to experiment, so I have used it in many other ways: to take macro photos, to get better angles (this mode puts the subject closer to you, so you get better proportions when you take photos of buildings), even to take photos of food.

2

Another strength is the Smart HDR. This is automatically enabled and helps retaining more details in the overexposed areas of the photos.

A limitation of the phone is obviously, the digital zoom. I never use zoom anyway on a smartphone, but the default wide angle camera can be difficult if you try to take landscape photos.

Knowing what the smartphone’s camera can and can’t do helps me understand what type of photos I should focus on.

 

Rule of the thirds

GIQHE6590

I have been taking photos for at least 15 years and one of the first things I’ve learned was the rule of the thirds. Never put the subject of your photos in the centre because this will create a flat effect. You can easily turn on the grid, any smartphone has this option in the settings. Try to place your focal point in one of the four corners, where the grids meet. This will draw the viewer’s attention to the entire composition of the photo and not only the centre. It will also give more life and feeling to your photos, not to mention context.

When you are taking photos of a person or an animal, always compose the photo by leaving the empty space in the direction they are looking so that you create continuity. The same rule applies when you try to capture a moving person – leave the empty space in the direction they are going towards.

 

Play with angles

Personally, I love playing with angles, especially when I am taking photos of buildings or streets. I also like to incorporate “old versus new” in my shots, because the new architecture style, at least in London, has a lot of glass. And glass reflects.

Take a look at this photo I took of St Paul’s and how the cathedral reflects in the shiny windows of the nearby shopping centre.

ANUTE4676

Reflections will always give you the opportunity to play with angles. As we remember from the high school physics lessons, the angle of incidence equals the angle of the reflection. Ok, I did not remember that, I got help from Wikipedia, but the point is that the reflection will always be at an angle, which will give the photo perspective. By playing with angles you are not only give depth to your photos but also balance and sometimes symmetry.

9

Here’s a trick, you can always create your own reflections by spilling a bit of water on the ground.

 

Find the right light

Sunrise and sunset are always the best times to go out and take photos because of the warm light and the longer shadows it creates. This is why there are probably hundreds of people every day at big sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru, Tikal in Guatemala or Angkor Wat in Cambodia, lining up with their cameras at the early hours of the morning, waiting for the sun to rise. When you visit an important landmark and you want to take good photos of it, it’s worth waking up early.

You would be surprised how empty the big capitals are at sunrise. Here’s a photo of Tower Bridge at 6:30AM, seen from the Millennium Pier.

IMG_E067999

And this is a photo captured from the Millennium Bridge, at sunset.

FWDTE0592

If you have to take photos during the day, when the light is quite harsh, try to find elements in your background that will “hide” the sun and create shadows, like a building, or a tree for example.

 

Capture the action

CANRE7397

Traveling is all about experiencing the local culture of a new place, and this may include dance performances, concerts and even rituals. Whilst it’s harder to capture action shots using the camera of a mobile device, it’s not impossible.

One trick you can use is the burst mode, which most smartphones have when you hold down the volume button. The camera of the new iPhone XS creates a short 2 seconds movie when you take a photo, and you can select the best shot manually.

Try to anticipate what the next movement might be and prepare your focus for when it happens. In a dance performance for example, look for patterns and repetitions. In a sports game, prepare for reactions when a point is scored.

CJSME0964

Set your shooting mode on manual and adjust the shutter speed and ISO. Most newer smartphones allow you to do this. If you shoot indoors, the light might not be the best, which will result in blurry photos, but if you adjust the shutter speed you will be able to “freeze” the action.

 

Portraits tell stories

IUYP7211

When I first started photography, I was taking portraits on a weekly basis. I had a few friends who would always pose for me and we used to go to different locations and do photoshoots on a point-and-shoot camera.

These days, smartphones are so advanced that they will have a setting that will allow you to take stunning defined portraits (the portrait mode on the iPhone and the Live focus on Samsung smartphones). It seems that because of the popularity of the selfie, all major smartphones manufacturers are integrating one way or another to enhance the portraits taken on the mobile camera. And I don’t blame them, there are A LOT of selfies out there. I wonder how many selfies are taken every second? Who knows!

2018-11-08 11.07.32 1

Anyway, back to portraits, there are a few untold rules that you should know when you are experimenting with someone else but your friends. Always make sure that the portrait is flattering the subject. With smartphone photography you do need to get very close to your subject, so it’s always a good idea to ask if you can take a photo and not just shove the phone in someone’s face for a shot.

Remember to keep the phone at the eye level of the subject when you take a portrait.

I do love portrait photography because I find people fascinating and also because a portrait can tell a story. There is a controversy around taking photos of strangers in public spaces and I tend to disagree with “the rules”. There would be no street photography without people in it. I do take photos of locals when I travel but always in a respectful way. People give photos soul and emotions.

 

Post-processing

IMG_E0042

The photos you take with your phone are meant to be viewed on a mobile device. You probably won’t print or even download them into your computer. The photos we take with our smartphones are usually posted on social media, mostly on Facebook and Instagram. This is why post-processing on your smartphone using an app is totally fine! I usually use the Lightroom App to edit my photos, which is free if you have an Adobe subscription for your computer. I also sometimes use the free version of VSCO to fix perspectives. The photos in this post however have been edited with Snapseed. It was my first time playing with this app and I found it very useful, it has so many options, including HDR editing.

CJWUE9182

The first thing I usually edit on my photos is the perspective, when I am forced to shoot angles from a position in which I can’t get them symmetrical or straight. I am also terrible with keeping a device straight, so I need to correct the horizon line most of the times when I take photos of a landscape. Then, I also do smaller edits such as adjusting the contrast, the brightness, the white balance and the sharpness. I do like my photos very sharp, full of details.

If you are shooting on the new iPhone XS in portrait mode, you also have the option to adjust the depth of field after you have taken the photo. I find this option to be brilliant, as it gives you full control over how much you want to put in evidence the subject of your photo.

 

Other tips for taking better holiday photos on your smartphone:

CMQOE4458

  • Make sure your lens is always clean. Wipe it with a soft glasses cleaning cloth before you start taking photos.
  • Tap the screen to focus on your subject. The phone will automatically balance the exposure of your photo when you do this.
  • Do not use the zoom on the smartphone. As Rob Percy told me, when you are taking travel photos with your smartphone, your zoom is your legs. As smartphone cameras have optical zoom which reduced the quality of a photo, if you need a closer image just walk towards your subject.
  • Don’t use the flash. You might be tempted, especially by night, but the result won’t be a great one. Smartphones don’t have controllable flashes, same as DSLRs, which means that the burst of light they produce will make your photos look flat, with unwanted shadows.
  • Take advantage of the blue and golden hour, even if this means to wake up early. These are the best times of the day to take photos, when the light is warm and gentle. During the middle of the day usually the light is very harsh, and you can easily over and under expose your shots.
  • If you have time, walk around the area you want to take photos one day before and observe it, get to know it and then return with your camera.

 

What do you think? Do you have any other tips for smartphone photography?

 

Disclaimer: Please note that I have been invited by Three to take part in this photo walk and test the iPhone XS in Bristol. However, this article is in no way sponsored and all the views and opinions in it are my own.

Some of the links one this website are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click on the link and do a purchase, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost for you. This helps me keep my website running and continue to share my traveling knowledge with you. I thank you for booking your flights or hotels using the links on my website. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

Traveler. Dreamer. Cat lover. Wondering around the world with my backpack and my camera. Contributing to make the world a better place.

57 Comments

  1. I love this post! I’ve been contemplating taking pictures with my Samsung S6 for my Instagram page. Although, its camera isn’t as good as the S9, I’m sure I can get great pictures with the help of this post. Thanks a lot!

  2. very practical tips for phone camera users. I think my two favorite photos you shared are the dog all wrapped up in his blankies and the dancers. The lighting is so good, the colors just pop in those photos!

  3. Oh maa gosh! Thank you!! I have the iPhone 8+ & I’m trying to learn how to take pix from it for fun… and my blog 😂. These are definitely great tips, I just discovered that we can do 3D pix from portrait pix on FB, cool feature I do wish I could save it like that though to use in other places though.

  4. I need to keep these tips in mind. I admit, I mostly take photos with my smartphone and I want to improve. Sometimes they don’t always come out the best.

    I have learned not to zoom in! That tends to make the photo blurry, which I hate.

  5. I take a lot of pictures with my phone for my blog, mostly because it’s easier for me to have on hand. But I have a hard time making the pictures look amazing. This post has GREAT tips!!

  6. As a photographer I am a big believer that the best camera is the one that you have with you! Getting to know your phone and it’s capabilities is great before a trip! Thank you for a great post!

  7. Wow your photos look awesome! I too find using my mobile phone to click photos more convenient than carrying my DSLR, especially for macro photography. Invested in some good macro lenses for my phone and I am good to go.

  8. Nice photos with the iPhone XS. Thought about upgrading from my IPhone 8Plus. The pictures you took look flawless. I just took a some images yesterday with my iPhone 8 to use on my website Thanks for reminding us that the IPhone cameras can take great photos.

  9. I’m really bad of taking better photos with my iPhone especially on holidays. But these tips are fantastic! I used Lightroom app couple times but I haven’t tried VSCO. Thanks for suggestions!

  10. When I don’t want to carry my bulky DSLR camera, I stick to my smartphone and happy that the camera features I have on my phone are remarkable. I love the fact to that I can edit it from my phone with the Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom apps. Sometimes it’s just easier to pull my phone out and take quick pictures.

  11. This is quiet amazing post and I love all the tips. This is something I am looking for. I love all the pictures clicked by you and the way you explained the things is amazing. Thanks for the useful article

  12. These are great tips for beginners and seasoned photographers alike. I love the advice about pouring water on the ground to get your own reflections. A friend of mine uses a mirror in her garden to get hers. Obviously, it will be odd to walk around with a mirror on holiday. Haha!

  13. WOW! This article really useful for me. I confused for choosing the take better holiday photos by smartphone information what would be the best for everything. But review this article my confusion has cleared. Thanks a lot for sharing such an informative article about tips of take photos by smartphone and I have pleased to get this blog page. I have read your valuable page and gotten much information. I like to take pictures of me with hair style. I hope your all information help me. Thanks Joanna and keep it up…….

  14. Oh my gosh! I absolutely love these pictures! I must admit that the IPhone XS has such a great resolution and when accompanied by such photography tips, the pictures definitely come out as bomb! I love it!

  15. Amazing tips! Thank you so much for sharing! I only use my iphone to take vacation photos, it is just too convenient. Will definitely make use of your tips, thanks again.

    Chad

  16. Awesome tips you shared! I own the Iphone7, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to use these tips. Maybe I need to tinker with it tomorrow and see if I can capture some better pics than last year!

  17. This is a great post for me as I travel often and use only smart phone to take picture as it is more convenient and light to travel with smart phones. Tons of tips here and one I shall remember is not to use the zoon function. For my next trip to Spain, I shall not touching the zoon and instead walk toward the subject. I usually used the zoom and flashlight. Now, I should not.

  18. Wow these pictures are all so beautiful! I need to have this for later to refer to so I can step up my game! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  19. This is a super collection of tips. While I was familiar with all of them – it’s super helpful to get reminded again because it’s so easy to forget them in the moment of running around and photographing. Also, it’s great to have all these tips in the same place. Will bookmark this post to revisit as a reminder. Oh, and your photos are gorgeous. Very inspiring.
    Thank you!
    xx Luci

  20. Wow, these are awesome tips and I will definitely love to try all of these as I am not good in taking photos, thanks for sharing!

  21. Such a perfect read for me. I am going to take a vacation trip and I will follow all these tips and advises, thanks for sharing!

  22. Aww this is great because I love taking photos and am always trying to find ways to take better ones when I’m travelling. Gotta pass this to my boy as he’s the cameraman!

  23. Good tips, and great photos! I still have an iPhone 6 that I use to record my YouTube videos. Hopefully phone camera quality improves as indoor recording is quite difficult

  24. It’s just incredible how high quality smart phone cameras have become. I usually shoot with my Canon DSLR, but if I do shoot on my iPhone for the blog, I tend to use the Lightroom app to shoot in raw, so that I can more room to edit the exposure etc.

  25. I love taking photos with my phone as well as my DSLR camera. Sometimes I just don’t want to lug all that equipment around to some things. This is very informative. Thank you.

  26. Your photos are gorgeous! Photography is a skill I want to learn. This post is such a great way to start that for me. Thank you!

  27. Thank you for such a detailed and straight forward guide to smartphone photography. This couldn’t be more useful as we are currently traveling and have broken BOTH our big cameras and are down to two iPhones. We will certainly we trying a lot harder to make the most out of our smartphones.

  28. This article is super helpful! As a beginner blogger and photographer, this inspired me and reassures me that my photos can still look great while I save up for a DSLR! Thank you for this awesome post!

  29. very nice basic rules! I do think a lot of people need to come back there because it’s not as easy as a lot of people think. I mean most of the holiday pictures of my friends suck.

  30. Oh my gosh, my photos never look this good on my smartphone. I’m going to have to go thru your list and try to turn that around. It would make more sense than lugging my heavy camera around.

  31. I can’t wait to upgrade my phone so that it has a better camera. I study photography so I think it will be useful to have a phone with a good camera so I don’t have to worry when I don’t have my camera on me.

  32. What a nice tips to share and also its depend on your taste with the right and perfect angle or site, view and how you manage your phone for the better and great shot.

  33. Thank you for all the tips when taking photos with my phone. I will definitely have to try these out and see how they work for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.